Your Next Source of Protein Probably Had Wings—or Grew From a Petri Dish

Eating insects has officially gone mainstream

Bug-based foods bring a slew of benefits, including protein levels comparable to traditional meats, relatively high nutrient levels, lower emissions of greenhouse gases, and decreased land requirements for production. Unsplash/Vincent Van Zalinge

Think noshing on crickets is only for those of “Fear Factor” fame? Chances are, if you’re concerned with the health of both your own body and the planet, you may soon become more adventurous with your protein sources. As the global population continues to grow over the next several decades, the world is faced with the staggering challenge of producing enough food to feed the nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050. Thankfully, the rapid evolution of technology is aiding research and production into alternative sources of protein.

While beef, pork, and poultry have been staples for hundreds of years—seemingly woven into the fabric of the American identity—mainstream awareness of health repercussions, as well as meat production methods, have shifted attitudes. Traditionally, processed meats have been eaten more among those with lower incomes and lower levels of education, as these have been the more affordable. Increasing correlations between high levels of meat intake with health problems (such as heightened risk for heart disease and colon cancer) have left some consumers questioning their “meat-and-potatoes” regimen, giving rise to the plant-based movement. Others, however, doubt the efficacy of plant-based protein sources to provide the nine essential amino acids necessary for optimal human health.

For those uncomfortable with killing farm animals—or who seek a moral alternative to factory livestock farms—kinder, more affordable sources of protein are hitting the aisles at grocery stores. San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, for example, creates “real meat, grown from animal cells without the need to feed, breed and slaughter actual animals.” And Dutch startup Mosa Meat is developing the first lab-grown burger. Mosa Meat’s burger debuted in 2013, to the tune of around $285,000 (talk about luxury goods)— and the cost has since dropped to approximately $11, which is actually less than many gourmet burgers on the market.

Others seek alternative sources of protein due to concerns that U.S. livestock, poultry and feed industries contribute to global warming and climate change, through their release of greenhouse gases. While not as significant as the transportation or energy sectors to emissions, livestock production in the U.S. does elevate emissions each year. According to UC Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner, “if all U.S. Americans practiced Meatless Mondays, we would reduce the U.S. national GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 0.6 percent.” As global populations continue to grow exponentially into the twenty-first century, the resources required to continue mass livestock production will put an even greater strain on the environment. Meat alternatives, however, may be more environmentally friendly. Memphis Meats expect their products (which currently include chicken, duck and meatballs) to require “up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally-produced meat.”

Formerly reserved for adventure eaters and thrill-seekers, another expanding alternative is bug-based protein. Entomophagy, or the practice of eating or insects, has been around for centuries in places like Asia and Africa and, as of late, has intrigued Western scientists as well. Bug-based foods bring a slew of benefits, including comparable protein levels, relatively high nutrient levels, lower emissions of greenhouse gases, and lower land requirements during production.

However, regular consumption of insects is still being studied. For example, is possible that those who are allergic to shellfish will also be intolerant of insects, as both are arthropods. Yet, for those who can handle shellfish without issue, several insect protein products are already available in specialty stores or online. Although the idea of chomping down on a beetle or termite is positively revolting to most of us, if you stop and think about it, those who consume poultry, beef, or pork generally eat something which in no way resembles the animal it once came from. Companies like Exo, Chapul, and Entomo Farms offer insect protein bars and powders online and will even send you a discounted sample pack, if you’re on the fence. Retail mogul Amazon even features insect-based foods, like the insect-based baking flour from Bitty.  

As scientific advancements continue to accelerate alternatives to meat and poultry, public education around diet will expand, along with consumer acceptance of these newer, less traditional products into daily lifestyles. While eating meat and poultry may seem ingrained in our very culture (think back to the hot dogs and hamburgers of childhood baseball games, campouts, and birthday parties), the ability  to try new proteins is an exciting one. With consumer interests in sustainable, globally-conscientious food choices growing, it is likely that the new stars of food science may be gracing our family get-togethers and barbecues sooner rather than later. Bon Appétit!